BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan – Aviators from the 21st Cavalry Brigade, Task Force ODIN-A [Observe, Detect, Identify, Neutralize-Afghanistan], fly continuous operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The aviators of TF ODIN-A rely on training, experience, and technical expertise to safely fly in difficult weather conditions including strong winds and low visibility. Few aviators would deny flying in Afghanistan presents unique challenges many other aviators do not get to experience.
Currently, the task force is in what is referred to as the “120 days of wind.” During this time between June and September wind speeds can rapidly increase, exceeding the limits of both the aviator and the aircraft. Even the most seasoned and experienced aviators are required to perform difficult crosswind landings (wind that blows the aircraft to the left or right of the runway centerline) throughout these summer months. Crosswinds can become so intense they exceed an aircraft's crosswind limit, which can cause structural damage to the aircraft or risk injury to the crew. These four months are also accompanied by scorching hot days, with little relief at night.
“Flying during the 120 days of wind forces aviators to improve their stick and rudder crosswind landing capabilities,” said U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Michael Knecht, deputy aviation safety and standards officer with the 21st Cavalry Brigade, TF ODIN-A, from Brandon, Fla. “Risk assessments go to moderate due to the increased winds and aviators get weather updates in flight from the staff weather observer.”
Dust, haze, smoke and even thunderstorms are all things aviators must be able to circumnavigate or adapt to and overcome. Many times aviators have taken off in low visibility due to dust and haze, knowing when they return they will have to complete an instrument approach. On an instrument approach, a pilot must fly to specific points over the ground at precise altitudes and airspeeds while descending towards the ground. Instrument approach procedures are designed to navigate an aircraft and crew to a set distance from the runway, on course to land after breaking out from cloud cover or low visibility conditions. The weather can deteriorate to such an extent that aviators are not allowed to take off because the risk is too great.
”Poor weather conditions and congested airspace make it difficult to obtain airspace clearances for our reconnaissance surveillance and target acquisition platforms, that need specific airspace and altitudes to accomplish the mission,” said U.S. Army Capt. Ronson Honeychurch, a battle captain with TF ODIN-A, from Kaneohe, Hawaii.
Due to the terrain and the few numbers of adequate aviation facilities, radio communications can at times be of low quality. Many times, aircrews will hear, “Aircraft calling, you are broken and unreadable,” meaning the tower where they are trying to land or take off, cannot fully understand them.
“A unique challenge in this country is the lack of infrastructure, the controlling agencies have trouble determining your location at times due to the lack of adequate radar coverage,” said U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Daniel Grant, battalion aviation maintenance officer, TF ODIN-A, from Plamer, Alaska.
Despite the difficult terrain, weather and communication challenges, the flight crews of TF ODIN-A say they are still able to accomplish the missions set before them.
“Good crew coordination between the pilot and the mission operators is why we are successful at what we do,” said U.S. Army Capt. Williams Biggers, a supply officer with TF ODIN-A, from Asheville, N.C. “It is teamwork that allows us to overcome the challenges we face on a day to day basis while operating in Afghanistan. Each crew member plays an integral part in our success.”